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Tigre Language: Strong Base for a Bright Future

Dessale Bereket

Tigre language is one of the Semitic languages spoken in Eritrea. It is the second most spoken language (following Tigrigna) in the country. However, its speakers are widely distributed over the country. They are found in both the western and eastern lowlands, northern parts of Eritrea and eastern regions of the Sudan. We also find them in the highlands of Eritrea in places like Dirfo, the environs of Rebto (Irra, Me’aldi and Wara), the environs of Hazemo, Alla (Bellesto), Ubel, Seb’o and various other places.

Since it is widely distributed, Tigre borders many other peoples and languages. Bordering with one another does also necessitate influencing one another. In such a situation, we could raise a question, “Has Tigre language was influenced more than it has influenced others?” Although answering this question needs to be supported by research, this language has enriched itself by adapting some dancing styles and musical beats into its original ones. This is in addition to what the other languages could borrow from it.

Many of the societies that live neighbouring or mixed with Tigre speaking people have fluency in Tigre language. Even some of them are part of the efforts concerted towards the development of that language. Putting this into consideration, no other language in Eritrea could compete with Tigre language mainly in its distribution.

This being the truth, what are the problems that have been roadblocks in the development of Tigre language? This article will try to discuss, in short, the efforts that have been exerted for the development of the language and their outcomes. These include the conference on standard usage of Tigre language in mass media that was held in August 2007 and the symposium under the theme “Quality Art Work: a Society’s Guide” held in December 2008.

One can’t blame everything on colonization in raising the question, “Why hasn’t Tigre language developed?” As we can see in different aspects of it, at certain eras of colonization, Tigre language had had a better chance to develop. So as to get a clear picture in answering this and other questions, it would be necessary to look, briefly, into the experiences the language went through in various fields and times.

Tigre Language in Education and Writing

A book titled “Jah” quotes various texts and elders that the first book to be written about Tigre language is “Vocabularire de la Langue” published at Burney in French by Warner Munzinger in 1863. It is stated that around the same time, another book had also followed by the same writer in the same language. Also in 1868, an English-Tigre dictionary was also published in London. Similarly, a grammar book of this language was also published in the languages of Tigre, Arabic, English and German.

All the books stated above were written using Latin scripts. It is easy to realize how hard it could be to find and understand them at this time. Therefore, when did the works written in Geez script start?

It is indicated that a book titled “Ktab Fidel Weqran” (An Alphabet and Reading Book) written by two priests – Qeshi Dawit Amanuel and Qeshi Tewelde-Medhin Ghebre-Medhin – is the first book to be written in Geez script. It came out in 1889 and was published at Em-Kulu (the environs of Massawa) known to be the first printing press in the Horn of Africa. This book was later improved and was reprinted as “Ktab Agazot Weqran” by Memhir Musa Aaron in 1957.

Even after this, writing Tigre in Latin script didn’t stop. For instance, a Tigre grammar book in Italian and Tigre in 1894, a similar work in German language in 1897, and a book of Mensa’e and Maria genealogy by Carlo Conti Rossini – an Italian researcher – in 1901 were published. It is indicated that the same researcher, after two years of the work stated above, had written in Tigre language using Geez script on the history and culture of the clans of Sobderat and Algedien from the Beni-Amer tribe. This is according to the book titled “Jah”.

Books written in Tigre, English and German languages by a German professor of Semitic languages Enno Littman assisted by an Eritrean Nefa’e Ethman followed in 1910 and 1913. These books are, at this moment, ready for reprinting with some improvements under a title ‘mieras’. The books include 717 songs (known as Hilay in Tigre). The songs touch on various aspects of the society’s culture and were prepared with profound research and utmost care. Littman with the cooperation of Maria Hoffner also prepared another English-Tigre-German dictionary published in 1962.

This being the progress Tigre language showed in writings, following will be the development that the language showed in education.

The first objective of the Swedish missionaries that set foot at Massawa port in 1866 was to expand spiritual (religious) teachings. To do so, they found out that it was helpful to give modern education along with it. Therefore, they established a school that taught in Tigre language in Ailet (in the environs of Mai-W‘ui) in 1871.

The missionaries moved this school to Em-Kulu and changed it into a boarding school in 1877. It is indicated that another boarding school was also set up in Gheleb in 1874. Both of the two boarding schools taught in Tigre language to Eritreans who came from different parts of the country. It is noted that they were schools that produced Eritreans such as Mr. Weldeab Weldemariam who played important role in the political struggle and in raising general consciousness of the people of Eritrea. The above mentioned two Eritrean scholars Qeshi Dawit and Qeshi Teweldemedhin were also students of this school.

It is understood that it was important for the missionaries to instil spiritual teachings through the secular one. To implement this, they used to produce books in Tigre language that could serve for both purposes. The Gospel of Mark had already been translated into Tigre by these two priests – Keshi Dawit and Keshi Tewelde-Medhn – and was published at Em-Kulu printing press. Similarly, science, geography, mathematics and other text books were also published. It is indicated that the missionaries had written books on customs and traditions of Tigre but did not get the chance to be published.

There was a missionary priest named Karl Gustav Rudien who was stationed at Gheleb and he looked after the publishing works. This Swedish cleric was very fluent in Tigre language. It is noted that he with the cooperation of another Swedish colleague prepared two books: “Digm Qdus Ktab” (The Story of Holy Bible) and “Fitih Mehari We’adotat”, a book on customary law, which was published in 1913.

At that time, the beginning of Tigre language, especially in writing, was very impressive. However, it didn’t fully develop as it should have. This good beginning was nipped in the bud for various reasons. Succeeding this, there had been no work accomplished that deserve a mention here. Except the radio broadcast (Seni Masiyam) that began at the end of 1960s and continued till 1991, and the nine papers presented at a workshop conducted under the umbrella of University of Asmara to evaluate the radio broadcast, it appears that there were no other efforts exerted.

Here, the endeavours during armed struggle and individual contributions by Memhr Mussa Aaron should be recalled and given credit.

Tigre Language during armed struggle

It is inevitable that policies drafted would have both positive and negative influences. During Eritrea’s federation with Ethiopia, a question: “Which languages should be official language of Eritrea?” was raised. It is a recent history that small numbers of people opted for Tigre language to be an official language. However, whatever the reason might be, the suggestion did not succeed.

Although it could be stated that the language was reborn during the struggle period, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t some facts negatively recorded in the history of the language. The offence especially committed by ELF in Homib (Barka) in 1976 deserves mention here but its analysis should be left to history.

On the other hand, at the same time, there was an important measure taken by EPLF. It started to use Tigre language as a medium of instruction in Zerro (Sahel). It is the students who went to this school, and who in their turn worked whom we consider to have brought the language to a stage of “strong base for bright future”.

After the establishment of this school, in 1977-78, about 40 books in Tigre language meant for students, teachers and adult education were produced, according to a paper presented by martyr Nigusse Weldu in the first conference of Eritrean languages in 1996. The same work indicates that another 39 books with similar purposes were published in Tigre language from 1982 to 1984.

Moreover, EPLF established a radio station broadcasting in Tigre language (known as ‘Kirn Gebil’ (Voice of the Broad Masses)) in the liberated areas in 18-08-1979. This has served as a major source of information and awareness, especially to the illiterate sector of the society, for a very long time. The role it played in creating a standard language that different dialects could understand can’t be taken lightly.

It is indicated that ELF had tried a radio broadcast in Tigre language stationed at Homib in November 1980, although it did not last long

Tigre Language in Literature

I don’t think the books written in Tigre about hundred years ago produced any works that could be considered as a body of literature. They should only be regarded as writings. If we agree upon this, we could say Tigre language was written in a form of literature for the first time in the 3rd Literature Competition held on the occasion of March 8, 1987.

In this competition, from the works presented we could mention two: “Hatr Fda Adu” (A Hero for His Country) by Mohammed Idris Mohammed and “Min Midrna Tewez Y’enbil!” (We’ll Never Budge from Our Land!) by Ali Abe Mohammed. As the latter was awarded first prize, it was selected for publication. As far as I know, it became the first fictional work embodied with characters to be published in Tigre during the struggle period. Therefore, Ali Abe Mohammed has taken a special place in the history of Tigre language for being the first writer to publish a fictional work in this language.

Ali Abe also has a novel titled “Atrayemet Gebeyom” (Their Journey Has Been Extended) published in 1994 to his name. He has also published recently a third novel titled “Leshirun Shef” (The Mad Battle). He is a Tigre language author who was brought up in the armed struggle. He is well-known for his good knowledge of the language and profound understanding of his society.

Another novel titled “Emenini” that touches on various aspects of the armed struggle was published by Mohammed Ali Ibrahim in 2007. Similarly, this writer is also a product of the armed struggle; he has contributed various published and unpublished works on culture. In the same year, a collection of poems titled “Tinker” (Flow) by Mohammed-Said Osman followed.

There are also a number of fiction works that didn’t get the chance of being published but aired on the Voice of the Broad Masses (Tigre service). These are a few to mention from the works produced: “Echet Hina” by veteran journalist Mussa Mohammed Adem (Wed-Mender), “Arwahat Min Qebir” and “Seles Gebey” by Ibrahim Idris (Kirbit), “Edam Embel Jerimet” by Hamid Abdella Adem (Albasat), “Sahel Midir Mihierbet” by journalist Mohammed Idris Mohammed….

However, it appears that the works haven’t yet received feedback from the public. Of course, as the society had been restricted to oral stories for many years, reading habit could not be expected to spread overnight. Even that is a fact, it is not reasonable to complain saying there is nothing to be read while what have already been produced haven’t still found readers. As change is usually gradual, it could only be reached after an inevitable waiting.

Stage dramas could not be treated separately from literary products. There are various eventful stories in Tigre society that could be useful resources for dramas, feature and series films. Such works shown during National Festival and Independence Day celebrations, we could mention the following: “Dingier”, “Wed-Amir”, “Wed-Basheqhir”, “Zemat Wed-Ukud”, “Arem Lega”, “Em-Kulu” and others. Although there are comments that such works are presented to audience with shallow treatment and without developing the stories fully, Abot Drama Group has to be praised for doing its best in such works.

In addition, there was a feature film titled “Emb’e Dib Edra” which received negative criticisms more than acclaim for different reasons. Previously, there was another film titled “Halib Btuk”; however, it did not have sound and picture clarity.

There are also criticisms that the dramas were intended purely for campaign purposes. Even though the dramas may appear like that, we find highly elevated reflections of culture, tradition and language. For instance, there was a radio drama sponsored by the Ministry of Health titled “Gebey Dehan Hol Gisa” by Mohammed Abdella Saleh and Mohammed Assenai. This drama, aired for more than a year, dealt with the health issues along with the traditional methods of treating diseases; and it is a good reflection of the traditions and culture of the society. We could also take feature films “Bana Lb” – on girls’ education – written by Ibrahim Hussien and “Emb’e Dib Edra” as examples of such kind of works.

And after these works, the soap opera titled “Biet Min Arish” followed. This work received critical acclaims and wide acceptance. It was acclaimed by all, whether they spoke the language or not. It also proved that Tigre language could be employed in various forms of literary works if enough endeavours are put towards it.

In the first part of this article, we discussed the general background of Tigre language in education, writings and literature as well as the stage it has reached. We also, sufficiently, saw some works accomplished during the period of armed struggle. In this part, we will look into various fields we didn’t cover in the previous part and the status of the language inside and outside Eritrea. This part of the article will also include various professionals who took part in the development process of the language as well as the general impediments faced.

Tigre Language after independence

The teaching-learning process in Tigre language, which was started during the struggle, continued in full swing after independence. The low acceptance of learning in one’s own mother tongue has also continued along with it. People used to complain: “Since we know our language, while we’re still in our homes, there is no reason to learn it at school! Are we going to teach you or teach us Tigre language? And how can we use it across the border…?”

The Ministry of Education has handled this matter at policy level and has also exerted efforts to instil into parents that students will not only learn their languages, but also get various subject matter knowledge through their language.

Therefore, there have been various developments that pushed the progress of the language positively after independence. In addition to the text books prepared by the Department of Curriculum of the Ministry of Education, various supplementary reading materials were also published by Cultural Affairs Bureau of the ministry as well as individuals.

The radio station for adults (now known as Radio Bana) – run by the Department of Media of the Ministry of Education – started to air programs in Tigre language in 1995. Although it has had some problems of reaching the target areas, its programs are up to the level of the society. The educational programs are aired in the form of dramas, which in their part play important role in the development of literature. The television broadcast in Tigre language that was commenced by Ministry of Information in 2000 is also a first experience; and it also enabled people to see its image in another medium.

While all these things were underway, PFDJ has not been totally inactive. It approached Memhir Mussa Aron, a veteran writer and who contributed in the language for a long time, to come back from abroad and prepare a Tigre-Tigre dictionary. The work was undertaken in the form of project within five years realizing a dictionary titled “Kibt Qalat Higya Tigre”. This work was launched along with a booklet meant to help Tigryna speakers to learn how to write Tigre language on October 5, 2005.

Memhir Mussa is an exemplary citizen who has tirelessly worked for the development of Tigre as well as Tigryna languages despite health problems and old age. However, it doesn’t mean that he has prepared this dictionary with perfection. It is almost natural that it has some problems which could be corrected in the future since he prepared it from scratch. However, it may not be necessary to go into their analysis but there could also be some problems on the part of some users of the dictionary.

Periodicals in Tigre Language

No magazine or newspaper in this language with satisfactory distribution and content has been available to date. However, it doesn’t mean there were not any. The monthly newspaper “Geled” – run by NUEYS – published its first issue on September 13, 1996 and could be considered as the precursor of this field in Tigre language. Nonetheless, the number of its readers started to decline gradually; it then became bi-annual and it finally stopped.

The trials of the NUEYS did not stop here. A Tigre language version of “Menesey” magazine titled “Takyat” printed its first two-monthly issue in January 2006. Its chances, however, were not different from that of “Geled”. Even if it is still being published, it doesn’t come out regularly – once in two months.

In addition, a magazine titled “Rayet” was published twice in the 20th and 25th commencement of Maria Schools, whose medium of instruction is Tigre language. It had praiseworthy contents and presentation.

There was also a magazine titled “Tsehay Berhet” with spiritual and secular contents that were prepared by Abba Thomas Osman, cardinal of the Catholic Church in Gash-Barka, and Keshi Oqubarebi Hibtes under the umbrella of Eritrean Catholic Church (Barentu branch). It had also continued for five issues until 1998.

Outside Eritrea, speakers of this language who live in Sweden in the town of Viekjo published a magazine – “Hedgayt Nisal” – that had raised diverse and multidimensional topics. It published its first issue in 1997. This magazine was edited by Mr. Mahmoud Kiflegiorgis and Mr. Ermias Idris Tujar; however, I don’t think it continued for a long time. “Sa’eyob”, another periodical whose focus was on children, had also begun publication but was faced with the same fate like the ones mentioned above, before it goes to publication.

After all these trials, “Eritrea Haddas”, a weekly newspaper (published every Wednesday) commenced its publications on January 2, 2008. Since this government newspaper hasn’t yet developed its own style, it has its own limitations. One of its positive aspects is that it is still being printed unlike those that ran for a few issues and faded. And as it has organized its permanent staff as of 2009, its future appears to be brighter.

Tigre Language in the Diaspora

Although it can’t match the efforts being exerted within the country, one cannot belittle the initiatives taken for the development of this language in the Diaspora. Most of these steps are taken by Eritrean citizens who live abroad. There are also some foreigners who sometimes take similar initiatives.

The efforts of Eritreans who especially live in the town of Viekjo in Sweden were very effective. To mention a few: they started to teach their children in Tigre language starting from 1988; they also started adult education with books previously prepared in 1991; taking advantage of the policy of the country which allows foreigners to develop their language, they established an association namely “Eritrea Mahber Tewerot Higya Tigre” in 1992 and started to conduct their activities under its umbrella.

They have also had a radio station that broadcasts in Tigre language since 1994. About 70 Eritreans actively involve themselves in this endeavour. The following are a few among them: Mahmoud Kiflegiorgis, Ermias Idris Tujar, Sarah, Hiwet, Ellen, Paulos Abraha, Abdellah Tedros, Tiebe, Idris Shanino and Mohammed Cheway. Memhir Mussa Aaron was also part of this endeavour while living first in Kenya and then in Canada.

These nationals who lived abroad had also extended their contributions in support of the efforts being exerted within the country. For instance, when “Geled” newspaper printed its first issues, the first positive feedback was given by the association cited above. On the fax message sent on November 10, 1996 by the representative of the association, Mr. Mahmoud Kiflegiorgis, they assured that they will fully support the newspaper in all its activities. Keeping their word, they supported it to the end by granting it assistances for computer and vehicle.

As it deserves mentioning here, on the preparations of about five books of children stories and language, they gave me morale and material support too. When “Eritrea Hadas” kicked off, their assistance didn’t wane. Especially, the initiatives taken by Mr. Ermias Idris and his wife Mrs. Hiwet deserve special credit.

Moreover, there are also some universities abroad that teach Tigre language. Some of them also conduct researches and organize workshops regarding this language. For instance, there was a workshop on history of the people and language of Tigre organized by Universita Di Napoli L’Orientale on February 7-8, 2008. In addition to this university, there is another university by the name in Berlin, Germany, that teaches Tigre language.

Along with the endeavours taken aboard, we can consider those activities undertaken in the Sudan. As was mentioned in the first part of this article, Tigre language is also spoken in the eastern parts of the Sudan. There are also efforts taken for the development of the language in that country.

In the town of Kessela, eastern Sudan, there is a radio station that broadcasts its health and cultural programs in Tigre language every Friday from 9:00 to 10:00 in the morning. There is also unverified information that there is a Tigre-Arabic dictionary in that country.

It is possible to add momentum in the development of the language to forge cooperation with the works being accomplished in the Sudan (not only in Tigre language but also in Bidawyet language). However, the imaginary line drawn by colonizers in Berlin in 1884 has still played its negative role by leaving various peoples divided.

Tigre Language in Translation

No need of expositions about the importance of translation works in the development of a certain language and society. It is not uncommon between peoples to make use of translation works so as to exchange their civilizations. What does the condition of translation works in Tigre language look like at this time?

Translation works, in the first place, have two aspects. One is works written in that language and translated into other languages. If we start with this first aspect of translation, there has not been satisfactory works conducted so far. The book “Digim Kil’e Mensa’e” written by the Swedish cleric Karl Gustav Roden (in 1913) was translated into Arabic by Mr. Mohammed Idris Humeday. It was published and distributed in February 1995. “Adgamat Bedir Egil Hadis Gim” another book of Tigre folktales has been translated into English by Ministry of Education and has been in the schools since 2007.

In addition, in the translation work of poems “Who Needs a Story?” prepared by Prof. Charles Cantalupo and Dr. Ghirmai Negash, there are three Tigre poems included in translation version. They are “Nzeker” by Paulos Netabay, “Iltdekel” by Mussa Mohammed Adem and “Juket” by Mohammed Said Osman. There is also unconfirmed information that some works of the famous poet Mohammed Osman Kejeray have been translated into Arabic in the Sudan.

In the second aspect of translation – works of other languages translated into Tigre – they are numerous relative to those stated above. In addition to the book I learned and taught with during the struggle period, “Mebatir Keyiht Enboba”, numerous books on politics were translated into Tigre. That is because the major literary work conducted during the struggle period was translation.

One work from that period is “Hakim Ber” (Bare Foot Doctor) translated by Mr. Mengis Ghebre. It is a work that should be commended leaving out the problems in the naming of body parts that arose from dialect differences may be.

Recently, 20 books meant to raise children’s awareness about their rights were translated from the languages of Kunama and Tigrigna by Citizens for Peace, a local organization lead by Prof. Asmerom Legesse. A few of these 20 books were written in Tigre.

Moreover, “Kiya 18 Deqayq”, a book written by Solomon Dirar, was translated and published by Hidri Publishers in 2002. Some of the works of late Mr. Nayzghi Weldu (Wed Hayget), one of the founders of the Voice of the Masses (Tigre Service), have been retained for posterity with some changes.

In the past few years, two works of history, “Aynfelale” and “Federation Eritrea with Ethiopia”, by Mr. Alemseged Tesfay, an Eritrean historian, have been translated into Tigre. The work was done by three individuals namely Adem Saleh Abuharish, Mohammed Idris and Omer Abib. Three of them studied and taught in that language; they have also shown promising translation works previously. “Aynfelale” has already been published and is in the market, while the other one is on the polishing stage to be ready for printing.

There are also various works that were translated and aired through radio of the Voice of the Masses but haven’t yet got the chance of being published. For instance, “Wefri Sigre-Dob” written by Solomon Berhe and translated by Mussa Mender and was aired on radio. The author of the book confirmed the standard of the translation work saying that the translation work was better than the original one.

Moreover, the novel “Qedyet Alqadi” by the Egyptian woman writer Semiha Kahloni was translated into Tigre by Memhir Hamid Abdella Adem; it was aired on radio and was well received by the audience. It is my personal belief that it could add some variety to the Tigre literature if it is published in a book form. Although the translator stated his inability to publish it, he hasn’t also shown interest to publish it.

The Advent of Professionals in the Ethnic Group

When we talk about a book, newspaper, magazine, radio, television, translation, drama, film…, it is understood that we are also talking about authors, writers, directors, editors, composers, journalists, translators, poets…. These individuals could be amateurs, beginners or professionals. Their advent in the society is, though a blessing to the development of the language. One of the advantages of the workshops conducted in the past enabled us to find out who has got what talent.

For instance, in the last workshop that assessed Tigre literature (December 2008), Memhir Adem Ali presented a research paper. The paper attested that there are not only the professionals stated above available in that language, but also critics who could guide the works of those professionals were not far away.

Each of the nine papers presented in the workshop had its own unique feature. They helped in assessing the talents of each presenter as well as of those who discussed them.


Over the last 150 years, not less than 100 books on diverse subject-matters have been produced in Tigre language. It is a development that could be considered as a driving force. Especially the measures taken at this moment are very promising. For instance, over 90% of the decisions and recommendations forwarded at the workshop on standardized usage of Tigre language in mass media have been implemented on time. Where too many intangible and hollow promises are very common in the world we live in, to find deeds justifying words is such a novel happening indeed. The time management and handling of issues in the last symposium on assessment of Tigre literature were highly admirable.

The government policy appears to have left open the field for everyone interested to use their potentials. Before such an opportunity passes us by, we should make use of it. On this moment, Tigre language is laying grounds for the coming generation and its future. Establishing the basis of any task is a part that needs the highest attention and caution, because, what we build on a hastily set base would only be unsafe.

One element that many people consider negative in the efforts for the development of Tigre language is lack of coordination.

However, the collaborative artistic work presented by various Tigre artists on the opening ceremony of the symposium on assessing Tigre literature was a proof not only that unity is strength, but also that diversity has its own beauty. When one’s steps are coordinated and directed forwards, they certainly turn out to be big jumps. Jumps towards common development! Jumps for communal progress!
By: Dessale Berekhet (translated by Tedros Abraham)